The social psychologist’s guide to making people stay home


Relying on people to do the right thing has never been an airtight strategy.

Azim Shariff

Nonetheless, the choices made by individuals will likely have a greater impact than anything else on the success of our response to COVID-19.

Azim Shariff is an associate professor of social psychology at UBC who specializes in applied moral psychology. This is the study of what people think is right and wrong—and how they act on it—applied to real-world problems. We spoke with him about how people are responding to COVID-19.

What interests you about people’s response to the current situation?

First of all, this is a medical and economic problem, but after that it’s a pretty big human behaviour problem. For many parts of this, we know what we have to do. The challenge is getting people to just do it. It’s what we call a collective action problem. How do you get people to resist their immediate individual interests in order to do something that’s beneficial for all of us? You have to get people to think long-term, and you have to get people to think collectively. That’s a challenge because we’re not really built to think that way—at least not in groups this big.

What do you mean by that?

We didn’t evolve in provinces of five million people, or cities of 2.5 million. We evolved in small groups of about 50 people, so we really care about what happens to the 50 people who are closest to us. Right now we have a lot of strangers who are depending on us, and it’s hard for us to instinctively care about people we don’t know well, because we haven’t really evolved to do that.

So how do we make it happen?

We do have ways of trying to get ourselves to do this. One is the formal edifice of government, with rules that you have to follow. That type of explicit enforcement has worked pretty well, but the other thing that works really well is the power of social norms. We really care about our reputations, partly because in that evolutionary environment, your reputation mattered more than anything. You depended on those 50 people you lived with. If they didn’t like you, and they exiled you, you wouldn’t survive.

A lot of governments have been trying to leverage the power of social norms to try to convey to people what the morally good thing to do is, and sort of reward people for abiding by the rules and subtly shame people who don’t. I think we as a community are doing that as well, and it’s a very effective way to get people to abide by these rules.

What examples of this do you see in the community?

One of the things I really like seeing is this 7 p.m. cheering. I live downtown, so it’s very loud here. And that’s for the frontline workers, but what it conveys to people is that we have heroes who are serving the values of the community. You convey to people what the values are and show that they’re socially rewarded. It’s hard to be so hypocritical that you’d be out there banging a pot for frontline workers, and then go out and do something irresponsible that flouts the values you just trumpeted.

On the other side, I’ve always been wary of the social shaming that happens on social media. This might be an instance where I’m more comfortable with it. One example was the Oklahoma governor who posted a picture of himself on Twitter, in the early days of March, at some crowded restaurant with his family, kind of thumbing their nose at the collective action problem. They got hounded for that. When people violate the rules, they get socially shamed for it. And I think that is really effective. The negative impact you might have on people’s health is hard to see, but the shame is not.


Story originally published on UBC News